This post explores the nature of homonyms as a word class. A definition and examples are given before moving on to consider polysemy, homographs and homophones, which are all part of the same word class family.

Homonyms: what are they?

homonymsPure homonyms are words that have the same spelling and pronunciation, but different meanings (denotation). For example:

  • You can sit on the bank (noun) of a river and you can visit a bank (noun) to pay your bills.
  • You might plant (verb) a tree and then buy some plants (noun) from the garden centre.
  • You can have drive (adjective) or determination, and you can also drive (verb) to the office.
  • You can fish (verb) all afternoon, but may never catch a fish (noun).
  • A cat will stalk (verb) its prey, while a stalk (noun) is also part of a flower which connects it to the root.


Homonyms and Polysemy

Some words can be homonyms (identical spelling & pronunciation), and as their meanings are so closely related we refer to this as polysemy. For example:

  • The root of a tooth, the root of a tree and the root of a problem.
  • The head or a person, the head of a stream and the head of a department.
  • The mouth of an animal and the mouth of a river.
  • The foot of a child, the foot of a chair and the foot of a mountain.
  • The branch of a tree and the branch of a bank.


Homographs: what are they?

Homographs are words that have the same pronunciation, but different spellings and meanings. For example:

  • I need to go and buy two pints of milk.
  • Their shoes are over there by the table.
  • He wants a stable large enough for his four horses.
  • Where should she go to buy a pair of new shoes to wear for the interview?
  • Have you read that novel with the red cover?


Homophones: what are they?

Homophones are words that are have the same spelling, but different pronunciation and meaning. For example:

  • I read the Guardian newspaper every morning, but yesterday I read the Independent.
  • He missed the train because the mist was too thick to drive to the station.
  • He shouted aloud that the protest should be allowed.
  • Cats often pause to clean their paws.
  • It’s hard to say whether there will be any change in the weather.



Term Meaning Spelling Pronunciation
Homonym Different Same Same
Homograph Different Different Same
Homophone Different Same Different
Polysemy Similar Same Same